First Turning of the Dharma Wheel
by Wayne Ren-Cheng Shi
Talk presented in the Deer Park at the Buddha Center, Second Life – First in a series offering a way to think differently about Buddhist ideals meeting the realities of contemporary life.
Siddhartha traveled over a thousand miles from his birthplace and home at Lumbini to the shade of a bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya where he attained awakening. He had abandoned a life of wealth and ease as a prince destined for greatness in order to pursue knowledge and wisdom. Along the way he studied with eminent teachers like Yogic-Master Alara Kamala and he experienced the life of an ascetic living in the forest submitting himself to excessive deprivations in pursuit of his goal to understand human suffering. Finally, after just sitting in meditation under a bodhi tree and gaining the knowledge of a Noble Path out of suffering he set out toward home, searching as he went for someone that might also understand the depth of compassion and wisdom that arose with Siddhartha’s awakening. In the city of Sarnath, 200 miles closer to his home, Siddhartha encountered the five ascetic monks he had once practiced with. They had previously abandoned Siddhartha because of his change in worldview from one of the power of deprivation to help one achieve spiritual liberation to moderation in all things is a more pragmatic path. Realizing that these were five men most likely to be capable of understanding what Siddhartha had awakened to he sat with them in the Deer Park at Isipatana in Varanasi and began to teach.
The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: The First Turning of the Dharma Wheel is the text of that first teaching, a teaching personally experienced by the Buddha’s disciple who related it, as evidenced by the words that begin the sutra – Thus have I heard. Siddhartha speaks first of the Middle Way that is realized through mindfulness avoidance of the two extremes of deprivation and gluttony. Then the Four Ennobling Truths that he had awakened to were spoken aloud to the five ascetics, truths that would come to reshape their worldview as it had Siddhartha’s if those realizations were viewed as actions. In the final verses of the sutra Siddhartha says, “This is the last birth. There is no more re-becoming.” Seen by many to be a confirmation of Siddhartha’s acceptance of the Hindu ideal of rebirth there is another lens to view those words through . . . a lens we’ll look through in a future talk. The Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta offers these important teachings in a traditional manner. Viewing it through a “contemporary lens” the lessons that the Buddha imparted can help guide a contemporary Noble Life, just as the view through a “traditional lens” still guides practitioners today.